Intervals – training or teaching?

In my second guest post of this new series, George Bevan (an organist, choirmaster and Director of Music at Monkton Combe School), pictured below, writes about his experiences whilst teaching intervals, and offers some suggestions for effectively tutoring this important skill. I hope this may be useful for all who teach instrumental music exams. Over to George…


It is not uncommon for students to be sent my way, usually a few weeks before an impending grade exam, to go through some aural tests. So this morning I found myself exploring grade 4 Trinity tests, which include identifying intervals – my favourite! As with many of the aural tests set for exams, I find that there can be several different approaches and that these generally fall into two categories: those which just work, and those which actually deepen the musical instinct of our students.

Those which just work

The age-old technique is to associate each interval with a well-known tune ie. a perfect fourth sounds like the beginning of Away in a manger. This was how my piano teacher taught me to recognise intervals as a child. It’s okay I guess, but since I was a chorister at the same time, it always struck me as a little strange to be imagining the opening of Away in a manger in the middle of a Palestrina mass – yes it works, but on so many levels surely that can’t be right?!!

At least the student has to match up in their head what they hear with their ears. [Anders Ericsson would call this a mental representation; Paul Harris would call it making connections.] But aside from this, I can’t see any merit at all to this approach. If you just want your student to get the answers right for the exam, then this method works. But why is this skill being tested? Trinity say it’s to develop your skills in recognising intervals. I’m afraid that doesn’t answer the question.

Those which actually deepen the musical instinct of the student

There are so many more connections which can be made here, all of which are going to develop our students’ understanding and skills, and ultimately their musicianship.

Let’s consider the nature of each interval, starting with seconds. Instantly we have the scope to introduce or revisit all of these concepts: minor second = same as a semitone; major second = same as a tone; seconds are dissonant.

Thirds are major or minor. It may seem obvious, but even without the fifth of the triad above them, they sound like a regular chord. [Add the perfect fifth above and most students will hear this clearly]. At this point, I play a quick game of ‘second or third?’ Never mind the major/minor-ness of the interval for the moment – it’s simply a question of is it a dissonant sound, or a pleasing one? Insist on an immediate answer. This will develop an instinct to listen for dissonance or consonance. Once they have this, then you can narrow it down to whether it’s major or minor.

Perfect fifth. Is this chord major or minor? Neither! A great opportunity to discuss that all important third in a triad as being responsible for making the chord either major or minor. Without, it sounds hollow, almost like you can put your hand in the empty space in the middle. [Add a third, either major or minor, and then play it without again to illustrate the point.]

Sixths. These are major and minor too. So now we play a variant on the ‘second or third?’ game, but now it’s called ‘small or big?’ and we play it with either thirds or sixths. They all sound major or minor, so now what we’re focusing on is this: are they close together or far apart? Again, insist on an instant answer to develop instinct, this time for spacing. Then refine – major or minor?

And now ‘second, third or sixth?’ Answer straight away – is it small, big or dissonant? And then refine.

Another way of approaching intervals is to sing. Specifically to sing a scale. It’s called a scale for good reason – it’s what we use to measure the size of an interval. But I had a problem this morning with my student – it quickly became apparent that he can’t sing (yet!) I played him a perfect fifth, B flat to F, within his vocal range, and asked him to sing a scale from the bottom to the top. He sang the B flat (pretty badly but near enough). This was followed by four more notes, and he finished sort of close to an E. It certainly didn’t resemble a major scale; I asked him whether he knew what a major scale sounded like, and he replied – perhaps a little doubtfully – that he did. His second effort at singing the scale was even worse. I’m sure he does know what a major scale sounds like, but he couldn’t find that sound for himself in his own head, and he couldn’t reproduce it. From what I know of him, I suspect that this causes him no end of problems. In short, each note that he plays on his instrument is an external entity, and not part of a linear progression running in his head. Surely that can’t be right?

Not so long ago I heard an examiner at a training session, outlining the ways in which she had prepared a piano pupil, who couldn’t sing, to score adequately in the aural tests despite his weakness. The one suggestion which she didn’t make was to teach him to sing. Is it a piano teacher’s job to teach their pupil to sing? If necessary then yes, of course it is! The importance of singing is not so much the external sound, but the need to have a mental representation of the sound inside your head. When I play a rising minor sixth, I know what it is going to sound like before it happens because I can hear it. And the proof that I can hear it? – I can sing it.

Being able to sing up and down a scale, in the same way as we might measure centimetres on a ruler, is an invaluable skill in learning to measure accurately. We can get a sense of magnitude in comparing a second with a sixth by singing our way up, step by step. It focuses listening skills, especially if we are insistent that our students sing in tune, and it helps them to create all sorts of aural connections.

Intervals are also harmonic. Understanding how thirds and fifths (and fourths and sixths for that matter) fit in the wider context of chords will immediately make sight-singing so much more straightforward. And if you can sight-sing, instrumental sight-reading is so much easier. Tonic solfa is an incredibly useful tool as well, in as much as it also gives intervals context within the scale. Singing a perfect fifth from doh to soh feels very different from singing from mi to ti – in the case of the latter interval, it is so much easier to aim at the characteristic sound of a leading note than it is to try to summon up Twinkle twinkle little star out of nowhere…. If we are serious about teaching rather than training our students, I can’t see how the name that tune method stands up to any level of scrutiny whatsoever.

In many aspects of instrumental technique, the best method is simply to show our pupils what works; leaving them to work it out for themselves takes too much time. But in developing musicianship, we need to encourage them to explore for themselves at every turn; ironically, just teaching them what works deprives them of so much opportunity for discovery. I cannot stress how important it is to spend time exploring these sorts of things with our pupils – the very things which some teachers say they don’t have time for because they need to cover repertoire, technical work etc. What’s the hurry? Let’s take a little more time, and teach in a way which will serve our pupils well beyond the confines of the exam room.

www.musicatmonkton.com


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 5

Continuing with my series examining effective exam programming combined with five tips for the suggested listed pieces,  ABRSM Grade 5 is the focus today. Some of my tips could be applied to similar repertoire, so if you’ve already settled on your programme, you might be able to use some of the ideas mentioned here. These pieces come from the Piano Exam Pieces volume published by the ABRSM (as shown to the left).

List A: A 3, Waltz in A J. 146, (No. 4 from Sechs Favoritwaltzer) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826)

German composer Weber, who studied with Haydn, was a fine pianist, although he was primarily known as an opera composer. ‘Six favourite waltzes of the Queen of France, Marie Louise’ were written in 1812; this piece exemplifies perfectly Weber’s ebullient style, demanding utmost precision, virtuosity and delicacy from the performer. Why not start by learning and practising the scale and arpeggio of A major (key of the piece)?

  1. The Trio (or middle section) has a distinctly different character from the outer sections; the opening is full of elegance and grace, whereas the middle section is rather dramatic, dark and almost sinister with its rhythmic insistence and minor key (A minor; again, perhaps explore this key too by working at the scale and arpeggio).
  2. The opening consists of an elegant theme and accompaniment. Aim to block out (play all at once) the left hand quaver patterned Alberti Bass (broken chord or arpeggiated accompaniment); playing one chord per bar, where possible), noting fingerings and position changes (this could also be done from bars 17 – 24 too). Then, taking a very slow practice speed, using a deep touch, ensure each quaver is played heavily, allowing a flexible wrist and lateral wrist movement between each note at the start, to quell any potential tension. When speed is added, lighten the touch; it may be necessary to break any wrist tension either at the end of every bar (to start with) or after each group of four bars. This can be done be releasing the hand and wrist’s ‘grip’, creating a very slight break or hiatus (only for a split second), allowing relaxation. If this proves tricky, practice by resting the arm down by the side of the body during each four bar mini-break (which you will have created if practising using this method).
  3. The melody (right hand) requires a very smooth legato, observing the four bar phrase structure with care. Accents (in bars 2 & 4) help shape the tune, and the acciaccaturas can bounce swiftly onto the main crotchet beat, adding a playful touch. It may be prudent to practice the quaver runs heavily securing all fingering, but when played up to speed, these rapid figurations must be light, delicate and graceful. Resist any temptation to accent the second and third beats of the bar, and turn the thumb under the hand flexibly, so as to avoid lumpy, jerky hand turns.
  4. Balance between the hands might take some work; a cantabile (singing) right hand will really enhance any performance, whilst the left hand can be light and soft. I find it helpful to reverse touches in this instance (left hand, cantabile, with the right hand playing softly, then adding non-legato coupled with legato into the mix).
  5. The left hand arpeggiated chords in the Trio need some kick and swagger; aim for a quick lateral movement (from left to right) in the forearm and wrist. Fingers need to be really active though, so that all notes of the chord sound. Keep the left hand thumbs (on the As) powerful but short and detached, throughout. The right hand needs firm touch; place each beat precisely, colouring the melody, with the arpeggiated chords merely adding to the texture.


List B: B 1, Sostenuto in E flat (KK IVb No. 10) by Frederyk Chopin (1810 – 1849)

A short, slip of a piece by the great Polish Romantic composer, but in just one page, many hallmarks of Chopin’s style are clearly displayed. This charming work was written in Paris for a friend and pupil, Emile Gaillard in 1840. In the style of a Waltz, it contains characteristics synonymous with the 19 Waltzes written throughout Chopin’s career. First of all, focus on the E flat major scale and arpeggio. And then the chord of the home key (tonic or chord I), consisting of E flat, G & B flat, followed by the dominant or chord V; B flat, D & F; these appear several times in the first half of the piece (left hand). The work is in binary form (or two sections).

  1. Secure the left hand first; try to learn the fingerings, notes and hand position changes without keeping time or adhering to a pulse. To gauge the leaps and jumps (which waltzes and similar dances often contain), always use larger jumps than necessary (experiment by moving an octave more than written), and once you’ve played the interval, practice it in reverse (i.e. backwards; you could even play the bar backwards, or beat three first). Each bar will need slow work, and after practising a lone bar, try to end on the first beat of the next, to ensure continuity. Always aim to land on each chord in good time. When played up to speed, give the first beat of the bar more promienence, keeping the second and third, lighter.
  2. In the first section (bars 1 – 16), the right hand melody must be cantabile (in a singing style), as often in Chopin’s music. For this, use a very relaxed wrist with the weight of your arm behind each note, playing into each key deeply, as opposed to sliding or skimming over the top. The depth of key, coupled with weight of the arm, will determine the quality of sound, therefore flexible posture, strong fingers, and a keen ear will be important here. Think of the Acciaccaturas as part of the melody line; slightly relaxed rhythmically, as opposed to the more precise ornamentation often found in Baroque music.
  3. Bars 14 & 15 contain a double note passage in the right hand; separate each pair of notes, (from bar 14 last quaver beat), and work at the lower note first, then the upper (alone but with correct fingering). When playing together, play with various touches (staccato, non-legato, etc.) in order that the notes sound at the same time, before focusing on the top line. Try to support the fourth and fifth finger, with the hand and arm, to produce a legato melody.
  4. The left hand melody from bar 16 (upbeat)  might need plentiful separate work; the acciaccaturas tend to dominate; practice without the ornaments to establish shape and fingering, then play them as regular quavers until they have been incorporated successfully. When confident, add speed to each acciaccatura and play ‘lightly’ and swiftly as a scant upbeat to the main quaver pattern. The right hand’s accompaniment requires soft colours and rhythmical placing.
  5. The sustaining pedal is part of the fabric of this piece; listening is the best method! Pedalling on the first beat of each bar might be a good start, then let your ear be your guide. Rubato is a useful addition to the end of phrases (such as bars 15 – 16), but try not to use it constantly, as, even in this genre, too much renders a performance unrhythmical.


List C: C 1, Staccato Beans (No. 2 from Eight Memories in Watercolor) by Tan Dun (1957)

Staccato Beans contains an exuberant vivacity with a Chinese inspired folk melody. Premiered by Chinese pianist Lang Lang in 2003, it has already proved a favourite on this syllabus. Written by Chinese composer Tan Dun, and set in D minor, dynamic contrasts and melodic inflections abound, providing an excellent exam programme line-up with the Weber and Chopin.

  1. Coordination is paramount, and due to the many different articulation marks, separate hand practice should suffice until fully assimilated. Jumps between sections around the keyboard must also be taken into account, before playing hands together.
  2. The left hand opening quaver pattern has been carefully marked and must be even rhythmically; two slurred quavers followed by two staccato. Once the overall chordal patterns have been learned (particularly at bars 1 – 8 and 24 – 34),  play legato at first, then work at the articulation, allowing a free wrist (as often mentioned here!); avoid locking-up whilst playing repetitive patterns of any kind; find places in the music to break any tension and release the wrist.
  3. The right hand melody is heavily articulated, a bold touch with added shape and definition courtesy of the accent markings is ideal. When playing staccato, try not to rush from one note to the next. This can happen when playing in a detached manner, as the shortening of a note can allow the next to be sounded too quickly. Avoid this by counting meticulously, ‘feeling’ the pulse.
  4. The left hand minims at bars 13 – 18 must be held for the entire bar, as they provide the bottom of the harmony. Coordination may need attention, so the middle Cs above, are well placed rhythmically with the correct articulation.
  5. Sforzandos are the key to a successful interpretation; accents in the right hand, at bars 26 – 43 particularly, need highlighting with a brusque, sharp timbre, bringing the Chinese characterisation to the fore. This is especially true of the passagework in the high register of the instrument (at bars 40 – 43, for example). When the melody repeats (bars 44 – 61), softer colours can be employed. Keep the sustaining pedal to a minimum; a dry, austere sound mimics the folk-song semblance nicely.

For more practice information relating to other piano exams and exam boards, please visit my archives, here.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Practising Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor Op. Posth. by Fryderyk Chopin

I wrote about practising this beautiful Nocturne a few years ago (you can read the article here), and it has become one of my most ‘viewed’ blog posts. This work is now especially popular partly due to the fact that it is on the current ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus (2017 – 2018). I was invited to rewrite the article for EPTA’s Piano Professional magazine; it was published earlier this year, and is more in-depth than the first one, with a few different practice ideas. I hope you find it of interest.


Fryderyk Chopin’s Nocturnes offer a rich array of depth, emotion and expressivity. Written between 1827 and 1846, they consist of 21 short pieces. The genre was developed by the Irish composer John Field, but Chopin expanded on this original conception, producing what are generally considered to be amongst the finest short pieces ever written for the instrument. This Nocturne was composed in 1830 for Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was first published 26 years after the composer’s death. It is frequently referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.

The Nocturne typically constitutes a romantic, dreamy character, suggestive of the night. The main feature of most Nocturnes is a beautiful song-like melody, often with melancholic overtones accompanied by a rolling unobtrusive bass. Ornament passages and filigree in the melody are commonplace, and the importance of the sustaining pedal cannot be overestimated, bestowing the overall dramatic effect. There are many variations, but the formula has produced some of the most haunting, emotional and exquisite piano music.

Whilst Nocturnes are generally slow and may sound fairly ‘straightforward’, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. A Nocturne, or any similar slower paced work requiring a cantabile (in singing style) touch and a deep connection with the key bed in order to produce a full, rich timbre, needs specific practice methods, and those ideas presented here could therefore be applied to a host of similar works.

During 2017/18, the piece featured on the syllabus of the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) Grade 7 piano exam. So with this in mind, here are a few practice suggestions for students to digest and apply, with the intention of making the path to examination success a little smoother.

The opening chords can present a few problems and need consistent balancing; an active, strong fourth and fifth finger (used to colour the top line) must be combined with a ‘soft’ approach in the wrists so as to cushion the sound. A daunting opening such as this, where each note must sound fully, should ideally be voiced perfectly and yet still extremely soft. The trick (other than trying the concert or examination piano first!) is to focus on the top note (or melodic material) making quite sure it’s completely legato; ask students to change fingers, where necessary, keeping the legato line, and then combine with sparse pedalling. By making sure arm weight is transferred to the fourth and fifth finger (experiment by moving the right hand and wrist slightly to the right, away from the body, therefore providing more support for weaker fingers), pupils should be able to produce a full sound in the melody line allowing other notes  (accompanying chords) underneath to fade into the background.

I encourage students to join fingers wherever possible in a legato melodic line – it’s more effective than relying on the sustaining pedal. Play the remaining notes in the chords with a very relaxed arm and wrist, depressing the keys slowly, testing the key bed, checking where the sound kicks in. Note too that the repeat of the opening chordal passage must be played much softer, like an echo. Here’s the passage;

And the melodic line, which needs special attention (with suggested fingering);It can be helpful to practice the inner parts of the chords (as shown in the first example here) on their own, gauging the necessary feeling, balance, and sound in order to play sufficiently quiet, yet altogether. Add the top (melody) line when secure.

After the introduction, the remainder of the piece consists of a rolling, quaver bass constructed from arpeggio or broken chord figurations over which a captivating right hand melody prevails. There are many different layers of sound in this work requiring a whole gamut of touches and pianistic colour; the three layers at the opening can be separated and practised in isolation (from bars 2 – 5);

  1. The melodic material in the right hand:

     2. The broken chord quaver figurations in the left hand:

    3. The bottom of the chord (the bass line) which is usually the first quaver of every minim group which generally occur twice in every bar:

It’s always worthwhile practising the left hand alone for an extended period, until notes are fully grasped (it can help to know the patterns from memory too), because absolute consistency and evenness is necessary with regard to rhythm and tone.  Rubato (or taking time) is a feature of Chopin’s music, but even the composer himself apparently insisted on a rhythmical bass, proclaiming ‘The left hand is the conductor of the orchestra’, above which the melody can enjoy some rhythmical freedom.

Students might benefit from using a variety of touches when practising; start by playing the bass line fortissimo, playing deep into the key bed, because then it is easier to pull back and achieve a smooth, soft, even sound. The bass notes at the beginning of each broken chord are the most important as already mentioned, and need slightly more sound and a tenuto (or held) approach (this note can be held for a fraction longer than the other quavers), because it’s providing the bottom of the texture harmonically (the constant bass C sharps in the following extract. The example shows all three strands or layers of music from the examples above, combined (or as written));

It’s a good idea to be aware of the musical structure (which is ternary form) and the harmonic structure too, as this aids quick study, particularly if the piece is to be performed from memory.

Each quaver in the bass leads musically to the next, yet at the same time must provide the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ layer of sound, and therefore should generally be in the background with regards to volume. Try to avoid the temptation to ‘poke’ or ‘jab’ at notes.  To play these bass quavers evenly, it might be beneficial to play them in ‘blocks’ at first; blocking out chords involves playing the notes in each group (here, on every crotchet beat) all together, so the correct fingerings, hand positions and movement needed between notes is swiftly learned. When this has been done and thoroughly assimilated, ask pupils to play as written, encouraging the hand and wrist (especially) to roll from left to right, guiding the fingers into their positions, allowing fingers to ‘hover’ over the notes in preparation.

The large gaps between the notes in the left hand (i.e. between the C sharp, G sharp and the E, during the first two crotchet beats of bar 1, in the musical example above), is more comfortable with a wrist rotation (or lateral wrist movement), the hand moving quickly back to the C sharp on beat 3 (from the previous middle C (sharp) on the second quaver of beat 2 (bar 1)). To do this rhythmically and evenly, encourage students to stay on each note for as long as possible, quickly swivelling the fingers and hand into place in preparation for the next one; this way legato will hopefully prevail and there will be few gaps in the sound.

For note security and gradation of tone, the left hand can be practised without any pedal at first and certainly without rubato. As the bass part becomes more secure, so pedal can be gradually added. It’s crucial to constantly listen when pedalling; the pedal is often best controlled by the ear as opposed to written suggestions on the page. This might sound obvious but it’s easy to pedal mindlessly, not listening to everything clearly.  During the ‘busier’ passages, pupils might experiment with ‘flutter’ pedalling; where the sustaining pedal is constantly moving up and down (or hovering) in order to ‘clear’ the sound and avoid blurring too many harmonic progressions.

The melody, as with many of Chopin’s works, requires a real cantabile (or singing style) touch. It must soar above the bass and consist of a wonderful operatic quality synonymous with Chopin’s style (Chopin was reportedly a fan of the Italian composer Bellini’s operas). A free wrist with plenty of arm weight can provide a suitably rich, warm sound; even the pianissimos need some arm weight and the overall timbre should ideally project fully. The success of this line relies on  an understanding of the nuances of each phrase. Rather like sentences, a melody must have punctuation. Aim to study each phrase ‘feeling’ the direction of the music, seeking where the most important note or notes lie and adjusting the sound and shape of the phrase accordingly. Ask pupils to listen to where and how the melody rises and falls, therefore enabling dramatic sections to stand out musically. Space is vital in this work, so students must allow ‘breathing’ time between phrases.

The tricky ornamental or fioritura (or embellished) passagework and scalic runs can be negotiated by working again with a full sound (for practice purposes only), encouraging all fingers to play fully on their tips (particularly the fourth and fifths), and deeply into the keys, as opposed to sliding over the top (make sure the fingerings have been written in the score before practice begins). Then experiment with different types of articulation (staccato, non-legato, varying accents and dynamics); complete clarity is desired in every figuration, with all notes ‘sounding ‘equally, as opposed to being rushed or concertinaed together.

A particularly helpful method of practising trills, like that found in the musical example (in the right hand at bar 2), is to take the ornament out of context, working at it alone. Begin by securing the fingering (and sticking to it!), then ask students to play each note in the trill slowly and heavily, using the full force of each finger (always ensure a relaxed free wrist and arm, preferably after every note, so tension doesn’t arise). When the shape or pattern of notes has been understood, practice using accents on the weaker fingers, then on the stronger fingers.

Each note in the trill can be played twice or as a double note; every finger needs to enunciate the notes cleanly and with force here (but without any tension). Pupils can then play triple notes or triplets (three notes per trill note). When employing this approach, the wrist must be relaxed between every note, so the hand appears to be ‘bouncing’, as opposed to stuck in one position, which could indicate tension. By playing more notes than necessary, when the trill is played as written it feels much easier and more comfortable.

Elongating trills can also be useful, and by making them more challenging than originally written, when pupils return to playing Chopin’s score, inserting the ornaments into their rightful place, they seem much smoother and more controlled.

After practising the suggested methods using a distinctly heavy touch, a lighter finger touch should reveal even, accurate trills and florid passages, with fingers skating over the keys lightly. As with the left hand, work on the right hand separately until secure and confident. It might be a good plan to practice with the metronome until total rhythmic grasp is honed, and only then start thinking about rubato. Working under tempo is also advisable until any hesitations and insecurities have been ironed out, and coordination between the hands is exact.

Scale passages in the right hand from bar 55 onwards, can be contoured to ‘fit’ with the bass line; encourage students to mark the score at the most convenient ‘meeting’ places between the right and left hand passagework, and then stick to this every time during practice sessions; within a short space of time, these ‘meeting’ places will feel increasingly natural, and will eventually allow for more rhythmic flexibility. The left hand quavers will also need to be elastic rhythmically in order to accommodate the group of thirty-five right hand semiquavers at bar 56.

At bar 19, new material heralds the start of a less sombre section, characterised by a dotted rhythm and insistent triplet figure (which appears in the left hand from bar 31 to bar 42 (the main theme returns at bar 44). Chopin has marked all details very thoroughly, from dynamics (‘ff’ to ‘pp’) to the precise musical markings, which must all be noted.

If students can colour each layer of sound accordingly, and combine this with a thorough technical grounding, they will be on their way to creating a persuasive reading of this enchanting piece. And they will hopefully be able to tackle any subsequent Nocturne or similar work effectively, whether it be for a graded exam, diploma, or concert performance.

Suggested further reading:

Chopin, Pianist and Teacher; As seen by his pupils: Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (published by Cambridge University Press)

After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton (published by Oxford University Press)

Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces Grades 1 – 8, 2017 – 2018 (published by ABRSM)

ABRSM Piano Notes 2017/18 (published by Rhinegold)

You can read the original article here: Practising Nocturne No 20 in C sharp minor by Fryderyk Chopin


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 2

Continuing my series on selecting and practising piano exam repertoire, today we  move on to ABRSM Grade 2. I’ve chosen three works (one from each of lists A, B & C) which are hopefully complimentary, offering a balanced exam programme, with five practice tips for every piece.

As always, selections come from the standard exam repertoire (as opposed to the alternative pieces). It’s possible to programme a large cohort of pieces, particularly for ABRSM exams, but I hope my selection offers lots of variety, both technically and musically. There are links to performances too (taken from the many on YouTube).

List A: A1, Allegretto (First movement from Sonatina No. 3 in F) by Thomas Attwood (1765 – 1838)

This joyful little piece, with a catchy tune, set in ternary form (A – B – A), was written by British Classical composer Attwood (1765 – 1838), who studied with Mozart. The texture is essentially melody and accompaniment. Start by dusting off the F major scale and arpeggio, which serves as useful preparation.

  1. Focus on the left hand, and play each half bar as a chord or ‘blocked out’ i.e. sound the F, A ,C of bar 1, beat 1 altogether, (this can be done in the right hand at bars 9 -18 too). Write the fingering in as you go, and note the necessary changes in hand position, to accommodate the movement around the keyboard (at bar 5, for example, where the left hand leaps to the treble clef).
  2. Now play the left hand quaver figurations as written, ensuring they are totally rhythmic and even. Either count aloud or use a metronome on every quaver beat. Keep fingers close to the keys for good control. It can be helpful to memorise the bars where the leaps occur (bars 5 and 26).
  3. The right hand needs a much deeper colour than the left. The melody would benefit from a smooth legato touch from bars 1 – 8 and 22 – 29. Using a relaxed wrist, encourage the hand and whole arm to assist the fingers in playing to the bottom of the key bed, producing a rich tone, and join each note carefully with no gaps in the sound.
  4. Balance phrasing in the right hand at bars 2 & 3, shortening the crotchet very slightly (before the quaver), playing it softly (phrasing off from the dotted crotchet). Aim to project the hidden melody at bars 9 – 16, formed of the first note of each group of quavers.
  5. Balance and coordination between the hands is crucial; slow practice, bar by bar will help with precise coordination between quavers in each hand especially (bars 4, 7, and the like). Try to keep the left hand much softer and lighter than the right. Add speed only when notes and fingering are secure.

List B: B 2, Waltz in G (No. 2 from Poklad melodií, Vol. 2) by Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 84)

A charming dance with a steady one-in-a-bar feel, written by Czech composer Smetana. This provides a contrast to the first piece (A 1), with its Romantic demeanour, and whilst it’s in the style of a Waltz, the title is apparently editorial! Working at the G major scale and arpeggio may be helpful as a warm-up.

  1. The right hand melody consists of phrases of different lengths which would profit from separate hand practice, and a deep but smooth (legato) touch. It can help to mark the most important note (or notes) within each phrase, contouring the dynamics to suit your markings. Listening carefully (especially to the ends of phrases) as you play will prove vital.
  2. The left hand can be ‘blocked out’; play each bar as one chord (as mentioned before), to learn fingerings and position changes, then give the first beat of each bar a slight ‘push’ or deeper touch, whilst keeping beats two and three softer, projecting the lilting Waltz character.
  3. The brief modulation to the minor (bars 12 -15) will require slow practice, in order to secure notes and fingerings and to accommodate the more unusual phrase breaks between the right and left hand. When playing on groups of black notes, move the hands slightly forward, placing fingers over the keys in preparation.
  4. There might be a temptation to rush bars such as those at bar 2, 4, 10 and 12, where both hands must coordinate precisely; set the pulse to a third of the intended speed, and work at the last two beats in the bar first (stopping on the first beat of the next bar), really listening, taking down each note (or group of notes) absolutely together. When secure, add the first beat of the bar.
  5. The last line particularly is full of accents, staccato, and tenuto markings, which must all be observed; insert these when notes are fully under the fingers. To place the last G in the left hand (bar 33) accurately, practice playing an octave lower than written (i.e. leap down two octaves as opposed to one!). When returning to playing as written, the jump will feel easier.


List C: C 1, The Cat from Peter and the Wolf Op. 67 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

For me, the third piece on any exam programme should be fun and perhaps slightly irreverent (especially for the lower grades). Many enjoy the jazzy pieces which pervade the C lists, but some of the other works are just as interesting. From Prokofiev’s orchestral masterpiece, Peter and the Wolf, comes this arrangement; the cat is characterized (and played) by the clarinet in the original version.

  1. Articulation rules in this piece. The contrasts between staccato and legato must be marked appropriately as they denote the cat’s impish, playful nature. Aim to use very short, spikey staccato; try tapping (or ‘flicking’) the keys with the top of the finger (pulling it inwards, towards the palm of the hand), leaving the keys extremely quickly.
  2. In both hands, quavers (playing the melody) need exact counting in order to ‘place’ each beat in the bar giving breathing space, but with no sense of rushing or pushing the beat. It can help to count in semiquavers.
  3. The C sharp (bar 1, beat 3, in the theme) is given a rich colour and slight tenuto (held or leaning into a note), and the C in bar 2 (beat 2), an appropriate accent, giving the melody shape. Each thematic appearance requires specific articulation in order to project the cat and its shenanigans.
  4. The left hand accompanies with short, well placed chords; play first alone (without the right hand), and place each one using a metronome, to make sure you are really playing on the beat. Sense of timing will make or break any performance.
  5. Tasteful appropriation of short phrasing and the many varied dynamic markings will ensure a colourful rendition; the printed narrative will aid the understanding of the piece (particularly for younger learners), but resist inclusion in the exam!


For other grades in this series please visit my archives by clicking here.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.